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Firefighter pleads not guilty to arson indictment

Firefighter Stephen Hernandez, 25, pleaded not guilty Thursday.

Firefighter Stephen Hernandez, 25, pleaded not guilty Thursday. Credit: SCPD

A Central Islip firefighter pleaded not guilty Thursday morning to an indictment charging him with setting fires in what a prosecutor said was an effort to look good by responding quickly to them.

Stephen Hernandez, 25, is charged with five counts of third-degree arson and tampering with evidence. He is one of two firefighters charged in the indictment. A captain and now suspended Suffolk police officer, Weldon Drayton, 34, of Brentwood, pleaded not guilty earlier this month.

State Supreme Court Justice John Collins allowed Hernandez to remain free on $2,500 bail after scolding him for chewing gum in his Riverhead courtroom.

Assistant District Attorney Andrew Weiss said Hernandez and others poured gasoline in empty houses and lit them on fire.

"The defendant was looking to boost his credibility within the fire department by being the first on the scene," Weiss said.

Hernandez' attorney, Steve Politi of Central Islip, said that was ridiculous. When there's a fire, all volunteers respond to the fire house, not to the scene, he said.

Weiss asked Collins to increase the bail to $25,000 cash or $50,000 bond, but Collins agreed with Politi's argument that it wasn't necessary.

When Hernandez was first arrested in March, two other firefighters — Austin Lehman, 19, of Central Islip and Shawn Key, 27, of North Babylon — also were arrested. They have not been indicted, however, and Politi wondered why, suggesting that one or both may have gotten immunity to cooperate against his client.

James DeFelice, the East Islip attorney for Key, said that wasn't true for his client.

"My client has no useful information for anybody," DeFelice said. "My client had nothing to do with it. ... It's the blind leading the blind."

Joseph Indusi of Brooklyn, Lehman's attorney, declined to comment.

A spokeswoman for the district attorney's office said the investigation is continuing and would not comment on whether Lehman and Key could be indicted later. The evidence tampering charge accuses the defendants of deleting information on a cell phone that wasn't their own for the purpose of covering up the crimes. Politi said he knew nothing further about that charge.

Drayton was suspended from the police department when he was indicted. 

Drayton joined the police force in November 2010, and was paid a base salary of $132,841, database records show.

In 2016, then Police Commissioner Timothy Sini -- now the district attorney -- honored Drayton for making the most DWI arrests in the First Precinct. In 2017, he earned recognition after helping deliver a baby at a home in Babylon.

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